January 20, 2007

A Crass But Necessary Accounting

As the conflict in Iraq has become part of daily life in both that country and the United States, the human costs of our war of choice have either faded into the background noise of an America inured to the conflict, or been shouted down when estimates have proven too shocking to our sensibilities. It is important to recognize, however, that the war in Iraq has levied expenses that are hard often hard to fathom in their magnitude, and that we need a language with which to discuss them.

In late 2005, perhaps sensing that need and moving to set the terms of discussion himself, President Bush - after religiously avoiding comment on the Iraqi death toll - ventured:
I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.
Disregarding the fact that every single one of those 30,000 was a son or daughter or brother or sister or mother or father, it must have seemed a reasonable price to pay to "protect our freedoms" and "bring democracy to Iraq." The President's estimate was in line with - and may well have been drawn from - a contemporaneous tally from the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project. Not keen to look too deeply into the deaths we were causing, the citizens of the United States comforted themselves that some eggs simply needed to be broken to make the omelet of an Iraq free from Saddam Hussein.

Unfortunately, the IBC figures were never intended to be an estimate of the total effects of the invasion and occupation; rather, they are simply a compilation of documented deaths as reported by English-language media. The IBC therefore may easily miss deaths from hunger, disease or other secondary effects of war, may not catch unreported deaths, and is vulnerable to overlooking individual deaths within mass killings. Still, no one dug more deeply.

Then came the second of two studies conducted by epidemiologists and published in the British medical journal The Lancet, and a firestorm of controversy - albeit a brief one - was unleashed. As The Washington Post reported:
A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.
Of the total 655,000 estimated "excess deaths," 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country.
Gunshot wounds caused 56 percent of violent deaths, with car bombs and other explosions causing 14 percent, according to the survey results. Of the violent deaths that occurred after the invasion, 31 percent were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes, the respondents said.
President Bush was quick to dismiss this estimate as "not credible," and Republican pollster Steven E. Moore chimed in that he "wouldn't survey a junior high school, no less an entire country, using only 47 cluster points." The study was just as vociferously defended, and it was noted that, not only was its methodology "tried and true," but that:
The U.S. Congress should agree: in June this year [2006] they unanimously passed a bill outlining financial and political measures to promote relief, security and democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bill was based in part on the veracity of a survey conducted by the Burnet Institute (Melbourne) and the International Rescue Committee (New York) that found 3.9 million Congolese had perished because of the conflict. This survey used the same methodology as Burnham and his associates [the study's authors]. It also passed the scrutiny of a U.K. parliamentary delegation and the European Union.
The sad truth of the matter, is that while The Lancet study did not claim that the U.S. had been directly responsible for killing more than 655,000 Iraqis, the idea that the consequences of our invasion could lead to such widespread horror was simply too much. Even if the epidemiologists had over-estimated by a factor of three, that still meant that more than 200,000 Iraqis had died because we had invaded, and even that number was nearly seven times the President's guess. Americans either couldn't, or wouldn't, wrap their minds around such a notion; it produced the type of cognitive dissonance with which we as a nation are historically unable to cope.

And then, somewhat predictably, no one talked about it anymore.

Since there is ongoing debate about the Iraq War however, Americans still need a way to measure exactly what is being lost. Strikingly, it appears they may be more comfortable chewing over the financial costs of the war in Iraq, even though voters have raised little fuss over the fact that President Bush refuses to include appropriations to support his blunder in the budget. Still, despite the fact that no one seems willing to press him on the fact that, as an ongoing concern since 2002, the cost structure of the war should no longer be a mystery, there appears to be growing concern over this utterly shameful waste of taxpayer money, all human costs aside.

The Boston Globe reported earlier this month that a Columbia University study estimated that the total financial impact of the war - including indirect costs like health care for veterans and a necessary rebuilding of a worn-down military - could exceed two trillion dollars. The White House, which originally forecast that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion dollars, appears unfazed by the prospect of having been off by a factor of 1,000, and a spokesman remarked that the Office of Management and Budget "does not comment on this type of speculation."

The New York Times followed up last Wednesday with an article that included a more conservative estimate, which accounts only for direct costs. While there are some who will note that at $1.2 trillion, this forecast shaves 40% from the total reported in The Globe, it still represents a staggering amount of money, even though its author terms it "conservative." Still, the scale of trillions of dollars remains hard to grasp; what exactly have we lost by spending our money on a war of choice?

Handily, The Times presents some clear examples. With the annual hard cost of the war in Iraq around $200 billion, for scale, note the following:
  • Annual cost of universal health care for all uninsured Americans: $100 billion
  • Annual cost of Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds: $35 billion
  • Annual cost of carrying out all 9/11 Commission recommendations: $10 billion
  • Annual cost for full funding of federal cancer research: $6 billion
  • Annual cost of immunization of all the world's children against a host of diseases: $0.6 billion
[Click on the image for a larger, more legible version.]

In other words, for what we spend on the occupation of Iraq in a year, we could provide health coverage to every American who needed it, preschool education for all children prior to kindergarten, make meaningful strides to protect ourselves from terrorism, push forward research into a cure for a major killer, and make children in every country on earth healthier. And we'd still have nearly $50 billion left over.

It can be argued that having to break the costs of President Bush's war into dollars and cents, and focusing on its cost to us in order to make it relevant - rather than on the lives of soldiers we have sacrificed and the apparently uncountable, faceless Iraqis we have killed or caused to die by our actions - is crassness of the highest order. While the need for a financial argument over the justification and the righteousness of this conflict is somewhat repellent, in the end, what matters most is that people start to talk about what we lose by pursuing this folly, using whatever frame of reference they need to use in order to have that conversation.

All politics are local, and if it takes a self-centered perspective to shut down the worst foreign policy blunder in American history, so be it. In this case, the ends unquestionably justify the means.


Thanks to Anonymous for catching a factual error in my description of the methodology used by the Iraq Body Count project. I had inadvertently posted a draft version of this piece that included incorrect third-party information on the IBC stating that it only counted deaths accompanied by a death certificate, and did not include information from non-Western sources like al Jazeera. Neither of those points is correct, and the accurate, final version of this post now appears above. I apologize for the error.


Anonymous said...

"The IBC fails to ... count deaths unaccompanied by death certificates"

This seems untrue to me. Where did you hear this?

"and [IBC] disregards counts or reports from non-English media like al Jazeera."

This is obviously untrue. I see Al-Jazeera in their list of sources, and I see it in the entries all over their database. Also in their list of sources is:

Al-Alam TV
Al Arabiya TV
Al Jazeera (Web)
Al Jazeera TV
Al Sharqiyah TV...(etc.)

to name a few

PBI said...


Thank you for catching this! I had accidentally posted an early draft of this post which relied on incorrect third-party information about IBC methodology. Corrected information is now included.

Apologies, and thanks again.

Brian said...

The mounting death toll is certainly more profound than any number can measure no matter what the methodology used to obtain it, and that fact conveniently escapes Bush.

Beyond the immediate human suffering, and tragedy of lost lives, the opportunity costs will resonate with us for decades because of the forgoing of other issues in order to pay for the war.

The following quote from your post is what strikes me as the second largest cost to America of the war, the first of course being the soldiers that have struggled, been severely injured and disabled, or been killed in Iraq.

In other words, for what we spend on the occupation of Iraq in a year, we could provide health coverage to every American who needed it, preschool education for all children prior to kindergarten, make meaningful strides to protect ourselves from terrorism, push forward research into a cure for a major killer, and make children in every country on earth healthier. And we'd still have nearly $50 billion left over.